Published Aug 24, 2020Vancouver songwriter Carl Newman founded the New Pornographers on a lark, as a recording project without plans to tour or continue making albums. They were nominally a "supergroup," but, at the time of their formation in the late '90s, lacked any members who were particularly well-known in their own right.
By 2005, when they released their third album, Twin Cinema (which turned 15 yesterday, August 23), all that had changed. Newman's songwriting foil, Dan Bejar, was several records deep into his unimpeachable catalogue as Destroyer, including 2001's early-career masterpiece Streethawk: A Seduction and 2004's MIDI opus Your Blues. Singer Neko Case was a full-blown country noir sensation, and her albums Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) and Blacklisted (2002) were arguably better-known than the New Porns (particularly Stateside). Even leader Newman had established himself away from the group: his 2004 album as A.C. Newman, The Slow Wonder, remains an understated highlight of his catalogue.
Twin Cinema was the glorious moment when it all came together. The members were at the peak of their powers: each with their own draw, yet not too famous to carve out time for the group. They had transformed into a touring band, and with their third album, delivered a 14-song epic that combined the best of what they had already done while giving hints of the baroque orchestrations that were to follow.
Previously, New Pornographers albums had been a relentless assault of sugar-rush synths, giddy vocal harmonies and crunchy power pop distortion. On Twin Cinema, they showed new layers: Case, who previously handled vocals on all of the band's most climactic anthems, channels the sweet sensitivity of her solo work into the mid-tempo acoustic number "Bones of an Idol" and the touching ballad "These Are the Fables." The spiky, angular "Jessica Numbers" is almost math-y in its complex time signature fuckery, while "Falling Through Your Clothes" is a peculiar patchwork of repeating refrains that, during one meditatively looping passage, sounds distinctly like Enya. Bejar's tightly coiled "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" just might be his best New Porns contribution ever, and the way it alludes to 2000's "Jackie" gave Twin Cinema its own sense of self-referential mythology.
Even the album's blockbuster bangers are more nuanced than anything the New Pornographers had previously attempted. Opening title cut "Twin Cinema" storms out of the gate with hyper-caffeinated rawk riffs before breaking down and then building back up with sublime, ascendent harmonies, while "Use It" has a swing-time piano pulse, and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" is lavishly orchestrated with melodicas and EBowed electric guitar. Halfway between the trebly synths of early records and the lush strings of albums that followed, Twin Cinema has a best-of-both-worlds quality that captures everything in the New Porns' repertoire. Co-produced by the band's bassist John Collins along with his JC/DC recording partner David Carswell, it's a beautiful-sounding calling card that helped to define the sound of post-millennium indie rock in Vancouver. (JC/DC have also, either separately or together, worked on albums by Destroyer, Tegan and Sara, Stars, Apollo Ghosts and many more.)
It wasn't just Newman, Case and Bejar who were at their peak. Then-drummer Kurt Dahle (of the '90s alt-rock bands Limblifter and the Age of Electric) absolutely owns "Bleeding Heart Show," possibly the signature song in the group's entire catalogue. Case may be the one singing the song's climactic final refrain, but it's Dahle who pushes the epic power ballad through its distinct movements: the toms that boom like distant thunder during the pensive intro, the grooves that build with urgency, and finally the grandiose fills that lift the coda.
By this point in their career, the band's lineup included newcomer Kathryn Calder, a singer-keyboardist who played with the Victoria indie rock group Immaculate Machine and also happened to be Newman's long-lost niece. When Twin Cinema initially came out, her contributions may have seemed like a bit of an afterthought — another voice among many, never having her own marquee moment, and serving largely as a live fill-in for Case when she was too busy for shows. But with the benefit of hindsight, Calder's harmonies on Twin Cinema now sound like quintessential New Pornographers — particularly when her voice rises to the fore during "Falling Through Your Clothes," or when she chimes in with the angelic harmonies on "Sing Me Spanish Techno," blending perfectly with her bandmates but still channeling her own bittersweet beauty. It's the first step in a journey that eventually brought her to 2019's In the Morse Code of Break Lights — where her chorus on "Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile" is quite literally the climax of the whole album.
Calling Twin Cinema the band's definitive album isn't a dig at the rest of their catalogue. They've continued to release great records: in particular, 2014's Brill Bruisers ushered in a new era for the group, one characterized by metronomic krautrock rhythms, blipping arpeggiators and round-table vocals that totally abandon any notion of the group having a "lead singer." Even Bejar sitting out the last couple albums doesn't seem to have interrupted their momentum; what's been most notable about his absence is how little anyone, critics or fans, seems to have focused on it.
Still, Twin Cinema is the turning point — the moment that ushered the New Pornographers out of their kinetic early phase and into the more mature, hard-working band that they became. Case and Bejar would soon become even better-known for their side-projects than they already were: the former's Fox Confessor Brings the Floor and the latter's Rubies both came out the following year, catapulting them each to new levels of indie fame. But on Twin Cinema, everything aligned for the New Pornographers to deliver their grandest statement. At a time when Canada was becoming internationally known for its critically adored supergroups — Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade — these 14 tracks proved that the New Pornographers could comfortably hang with (and possibly even surpass) the very best during our country's golden age of indie rock.